July 7, 2023 - 4:00pm

With Ukraine’s counteroffensive progressing more slowly than hoped, a change in the relationship between Kyiv and its Western backers may lie in store. In an interview with CNN, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy blamed the West for the faltering operation, saying that slow weapons deliveries to Ukraine thwarted plans to begin sooner. 

“I’m grateful to the US as the leaders of our support,” Zelenskyy said, “but I told them as well as European leaders that we would like to start our counteroffensive earlier, and we need all the weapons and materiel for that. Why? Simply because if we start later, it will go slower.”  

Zelenskyy went on to note that the delay in launching the counteroffensive allowed Russia to build up stronger defences. “Everyone understood that if the counteroffensive unfolds later, then a bigger part of our territory will be mined. We give our enemy the time and possibility to place more mines and prepare their defensive lines,” the Ukrainian President said.  

The leader’s complaint comes close to openly admitting that the counteroffensive is not going to plan. Expectation management was always going to be a challenge for Ukraine; memories of Russia’s shambolic withdrawal from the Kharkiv region last autumn raised unrealistic hopes for more rapid territorial gains and crumbling Russian defences this time around. But Moscow was not going to allow lightning to strike twice.  

Instead, weeks into the counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces still haven’t reached Russia’s main defensive positions and Zelenskyy claims operations in some areas can’t even begin due to a lack of equipment.

As the realisation dawns that a lightning strike to end the war isn’t in the offing, the West must face up to the demands of a drawn-out conflict — especially the huge industrial and logistical challenge of sustaining an attritional war effort for years. Calls for more “red lines” to be crossed will only grow louder; Zelenskyy lamented, again during the CNN interview, of Ukraine’s lack of modern fighter jets, saying counteroffensive ground operations are “very difficult without cover from the air”. 

Such statements seem to be an attempt to lay the groundwork for future interpretations of potential failure. If Ukraine’s counteroffensive isn’t successful, Zelenskyy wants the history books to blame Western supporters, not Kyiv’s decision-makers. He isn’t the only one now pushing this line — senior advisor Mykhailo Podolyak took to Twitter this week to rage against Western hesitation, as “every decision has to be literally gnawed out with teeth, wasting months of empty talk”. 

For some Westerners, this will be hard to digest. Many believe their countries have been more than generous to Ukraine, and amid suspicions that Western taxpayers will ultimately end up footing the bill for the war, the idea that not enough has been done will be a bitter pill to swallow. 

The sternest test of Zelenskyy’s famous communication skills now lies in store. Ukraine’s future depends on his ability to chide the West into even stronger support, without allowing failures to foster resentment. With Russia racked by internal division over its own handling of the war, Vladimir Putin would surely take solace from a faltering counteroffensive driving a wedge between Ukraine and its allies. 

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz